Chances are, you haven’t yet met your tonsils - but plenty of your friends have had their tonsils removed, a procedure called a ‘tonsillectomy’. Tonsils are two little glands in the very back of your throat, that help fight germs (they’re full of white blood cells). However, despite their function to fight infection, they can sometimes fail and get infected themselves!
The tonsillectomy procedure
Tonsil removal is conducted under general anesthesia, and usually takes around twenty to thirty minutes. There are a few different methods of removal, but the most common is called cold knife dissection or steel dissection, which is simply removing your tonsils with a scalpel (a surgical knife).
Optionally, your doctor might remove your tonsils by cauterization, which basically means burning them away, or through ultrasonic vibration (the use of sound waves). The procedure is quite straightforward, and you won’t feel any pain. You may have a sore throat or a small amount of pain after you wake up, but nothing severe. Once staff has monitored your vitals on awakening, they will probably send you home the same day.
When do you need a tonsillectomy?
An infection of the tonsils is called tonsillitis. It’s very likely that you’ll experience this at least once during your life. Your tonsils become enlarged, red and swollen, and you will have trouble swallowing and probably a mild fever (which is always a sign of the body fighting off an infection). Other glands in your neck may become swollen, too, and your tonsils may be coated with a yellowish substance.
If you have frequent bouts of tonsillitis, or a recurring infection such as strep throat that doesn’t clear up on its own, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection, and if that doesn’t work sufficiently well, you will have a tonsillectomy.
Tonsillitis (and therefore, tonsillectomies) are most common in children, but can occur at all ages. If you’ve had five to seven attacks of tonsillitis over the last year or so, you should discuss the need for a tonsillectomy with your doctor.
You may also be advised a tonsillectomy if you have abnormally large tonsils, which can cause very loud snoring or sleep apnea, which is a condition that causes you to suddenly stop breathing during your sleep. So if you’re frequently disturbing your spouse at night with your snoring or sudden gasping, a simple tonsillectomy could be the solution.
Preparing for a tonsillectomy
As before any surgery, your doctor will review your medical history. Make sure you take along a detailed report of any medications you take regularly - including vitamins and herbal supplements! Answer any questions your doctor may ask you as completely and truthfully as possible, and don’t forget to let them know about any medical allergies you may have.
You’ll be told to stop taking anti-inflammatory medications for up to two weeks before the surgery is planned, as they increase your risk of bleeding. Your doctor will give you the full list, but they include staples such as aspirin, so make sure you don’t take any by accident!
The night before your tonsillectomy, you must avoid food and water after midnight to avoid the risk of nausea and therefore vomiting during the operation while you are unconscious, which is a serious choking hazard. An empty stomach is best when dealing with anesthetic!
Plan the surgery in detail with a family member or caregiver - you must have someone to drive you to the hospital, a suitcase containing whatever you may need for the duration, such as a change of clothes, book to read, and so on, and someone to drive you home and take care of you after the surgery (you will be very groggy). You will need to spend around a week away from work or school, recovering at home.
Recovery from tonsillectomy
Recovery may be accompanied by mild discomfort, such as a sore throat or a little pain around the ears, jaws or throat (the ENT zone). You will be advised to consume delicious things like cold juice and water or ice lollies, with other soft foods such as broth, ice cream, pudding and applesauce added on after a couple of days. Hard, rough and spicy foods are a no-no for a minimum of a week.
You may be prescribed pain medication to make your recovery easier. Make sure you follow your doctor’s advice exactly, and contact them if you experience any abnormal symptoms such as bleeding in your tonsils or a fever. You will likely snore while recovering, until the swelling in the area has died down, but you should not have trouble breathing.
The internet can be a great place to meet others who have gone through and are currently going through similar surgeries, and share advice and experiences. Some great resources are tonsillectomyrecovery.com, which shares a personal experience and a lot of advice, and Reddit, which has several very informative threads on tonsillectomy experiences such as this one and this one. You can even post a question yourself, and receive encouragement, advice and feedback!
A simple procedure like a tonsillectomy can greatly reduce the number of future throat infections you experience!